A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin

Date Read: August 30th 2019

Published: August 6th 2019

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 272

 

The Blurb

A stunning debut novel, from Rhodes Scholar and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Tope Folarin about a Nigerian family living in Utah and their uncomfortable assimilation to American life.

Living in small-town Utah has always been an uneasy fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in and find his place in the world, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.

Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.

But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief from the demons that plague her; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection—to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.

Sweeping, stirring, and perspective-shifting, A Particular Kind of Black Man is a beautiful and poignant exploration of the meaning of memory, manhood, home, and identity as seen through the eyes of a first-generation Nigerian-American.

 

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

I was so excited when Simon & Schuster sent me Folarin’s debut. I’m a fan of Folarin’s Caine Prize shortlisted stories – Miracle and Genesis and I had been waiting for this debut since 2016 – when he was shortlisted for the second time for the Caine Prize.

A Particular Kind of Black Man is a coming-of-age tale that follows Tunde and his family, in Utah and later in Dallas. Throughout the novel, Tunde is trying to understand himself while enduring various changes that emotionally rock his family.

While reading this debut, I was hoping it wouldn’t be the cliché immigrant story of the first-generation American character trying to strike a balance between their American-ness and their African-ness – I’ve honestly read ENOUGH of such stories over the years. This novel did touch on those identity issues, but Folarin gave us more. I love that Folarin shed light on the importance of a mother’s love in the development of the boy child; the effect a mother’s abuse and absence have on the boy child’s psyche. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that Tunde childhood with and without his mother affected him in a plethora of ways. I always knew mothers/mother figures were important in families, but this novel somehow made me see their importance from a whole different angle, especially with Tunde’s lack of his mother’s love.

Tunde’s dad is such an important character in this book – if this debut is ever read for a literature class or discussed in a book club, soooo much can be said about him! He was a loving, strict father, who was deeply affected by the demise of his marriage(s). He was a proud Yoruba man, yet desired to assimilate into American culture (especially in his need to acquire an American accent) just so he could keep a job. Stress gets the best of him and readers see hints of depression, as he fought to stay jovial and positive for his family. Reading and relating to his character felt so real, because in real life, many immigrants don’t always achieve the ‘American dream.’ I wish Folarin gave more insight into Tunde’s dad’s life towards the end of the novel, because he just vanished when Tunde went off to college.

Folarin made this debut more exciting for me with how he played with perspective and memory throughout the novel. At one point, the novel is written in first person (Tunde’s voice) and in some chapters it’s written in the third person. With chapters that are written in first person, Tunde admits to readers that the re-telling of various events discussed in the book may be false, as he seems to suffer from double-memory. I found this both upsetting and fascinating, because Tunde himself isn’t sure of anything anymore, to the point where he thinks he possesses symptoms of his mother’s Schizophrenia. Tunde steadily tries to be a particular type of black man, and Folarin’s use of various perspectives help us witness Tunde’s performance from various aspects.

What I’ve always liked about Folarin’s writing is how lucid and artfully descriptive his stories are. This debut shows Folarin’s poetic and funny side, as various passages display bits of humor and poetic melodies. I will continue to read anything Folarin writes! Read this book if you can.

Special thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book!

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase A Particular Kind of Black Man on Amazon

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah

Date Read: July 28th 2017

Published: February 1999

Publisher: One World / Ballantine

Pages: 288

The Blurb 

This moving memoir of an African-American woman’s lifelong fight to identify and overcome depression offers an inspirational story of healing and emergence. Wrapped within Danquah’s engaging account of this universal affliction is rare and insightful testimony about what it means to be black, female, and battling depression in a society that often idealizes black women as strong, nurturing caregivers. A startlingly honest, elegantly rendered depiction of depression, Willow Weep for Me calls out to all women who suffer in silence with a life-affirming message of recovery. Meri Danquah rises from the pages, a true survivor, departing a world of darkness and reclaiming her life.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I read Willow Weep for Me last year around this time. After reading, I just wanted the memoir to sit with me for awhile before discussing my thoughts! I learned a lot from this book, but one thing that stuck with me is: Black women are not immune to clinical depression. We need to stop contending with the stereotypic image of strength. This image encourages stoicism while several black women live in denial by denying their pain. And it’s harmful.

The illusion of strength has been and continues to be of major significance to me as a black woman. The one myth that I have had to endure my entire life is that of my supposed birthright to strength. Black women are supposed to be strong – caretakers, nurtures, healers of other people – any of the twelve dozen variations of Mammy. Emotional hardship is supposed to be built into the structure of our lives. It went along with the territory of being both black and female in a society that completely undervalues the lives of black people and regards all women as second-class citizens. It seemed that suffering, for a black woman, was part of the package.

Or so I thought. (pg. 19)

Willow Weep For Me, which was published back in 1999, is a deeply personal memoir on Ghanaian-American writer – Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s journey through depression. What makes this book truly special is the clarity of Danquah’s writing. This memoir is beautifully laced with poetic phrases and visceral descriptions, giving readers the full experience of various anecdotes and incidences that occurred in her life. I loved how Danquah incorporated the stories of other (black) women’s journeys through depression into this memoir, allowing readers to resonate with the many variations of mental illness. Through other women’s experiences highlighted in this book, I was enlightened on the force of suicidal ideation, seasonal depression and some side-effects of anti-depressants (which varies from person to person).

 

Some of my favorite quotes from the memoir:

White women who suffer from mental illness are depicted as idle, spoiled, or just plain hysterical. Black men are demonized and pathologized. Black women with psychological problems are certainly not seen as geniuses; we are generally not labeled ‘hysterical’ or ‘eccentric’ or even ‘pathological’. When a black woman suffers from a mental disorder, the overwhelming opinion is that she is weak. And weakness in black women is intolerable. (pg. 20)


I’ve frequently been told things like: “Girl, you’ve been hanging out with too many white folk” ; “What do you have to be depressed about? If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything” ; “Take your troubles to Jesus, not no damn psychiatrist.” (pg. 21)


From the beginning, our relationship was formula for disaster. Depressed people often attract unhealthy relationships and inadvertently subject themselves and their already battered self-image, to additional abuse… You feel as if you are worthless so you attach yourself to someone who you think will give your life some meaning, be a safe harbor for your souls. But only you can protect what’s inside. (pg. 41)


I despise the way blackness in the English language, symbolizes death and negativity. Because I believe that the absorption of these connotations contributes to self-hate, I avoid them at all cost (pg 182).


We sat in an awkward silence for some time. I wondered why, after all he had been through with his mother, Eugene welcomed another depressive into his life. Wasn’t he afraid of the consequences? How did he escape the contagious effects of mental illness? (pg. 217)


“Why do you give people so much power over you? That M.D. behind his name just means that he’s trained to facilitate your healing. You’re the one who’s actually got to make it happen. Therapy doesn’t work unless you know what you want out of it. You’re the one who has the power to change things.” (pg. 220)


Racism is definitely in the eye of the beholder. White people have at hand the privilege of choosing whether to see or not see the racism that takes place around them. If Dr. Fitzgerald could not ‘fathom’ my reality as a black person, how would he be able to assess or address the rage, the fear and the host of other complex emotions that go hand-in-hand with being black in a racist society? For whatever reasons, seeing a black therapist had never crossed my mind, until then. (pg. 224)


I love that this memoir ended on a hopeful note and allows readers to view life and it’s challenges from a practical angle. We often forget that going to therapy & support groups, asking questions, talking to family/friends and taking control of your healing by being a partner in your healing process instead of being a mere patient who is being treated, is paramount and empowering.

Now with the importance of mental health getting the attention it needs in the media, I hope more people will discover this timeless memoir. Willow Weep For Me was written almost 20 years ago, and all of Danquah’s experiences and commentary on depression in this memoir are being reiterated in countless articles, think-pieces and seminars on mental health today. Danquah’s daughter (who plays a key role in this memoir!) – Korama (who was a year behind me in high school – GIS) must be SUPER proud of her mother for writing this important, brave, empowering memoir. I’m still in awe and will continue to re-read some of the quotes I highlighted again and again and again. More people NEED to read this memoir.

Before, I used to wonder what my life would have been like had I not gone through my depressions; now, I don’t know if I would trade those experiences. I love who I am. And without those past depressions, I wouldn’t be the same person. (pg. 266)

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression on Amazon

A Bitter Pill To Swallow by Tiffany Gholar

Date Read: February 15th 2017

Published: 2016

PublisherBlurb Books

Pages: 315

 

 

 

 

The Blurb 

Winner of the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.

On the edge of the Chicago medical district, the Harrison School for Exceptional Youth looks like a castle in a snow globe. Janina has been there since she was ten years old, and now she’s fourteen. She feels so safe inside its walls that she’s afraid to leave.
Devante’s parents bring him there after a tragedy leaves him depressed and suicidal. Even though he’s in a different place, he can’t escape the memories that come flooding back when he least expects them.
Dr. Gail Thomas comes to work there after quitting her medical residency. Frustrated and on the verge of giving up on her dreams, she sees becoming a counselor as her last chance to put her skills to the test.
When he founded the school, Dr. Lutkin designed its unique environment to be a place that would change the students’ lives. He works hard as the keeper of other people’s secrets, though he never shares any of his own.
But everything changes late in the winter of 1994 when these four characters’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. None of them will ever be the same.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

A Bitter Pill To Swallow is a young adult novel set in 1994 Chicago that closely follows three characters as they battle with various stresses life brought them. Devante is a young black high school student, suffering from intense PTSD; Janina is a quirky young black high school student, who has been diagnosed with some features of schizotypal personality disorder; Dr. Gail Thomas is a determined young black women who is finally a medical resident after taking a break from her residency program, due to family issues. All three characters have their own bitter pills to swallow and eventually meet at a therapeutic boarding school- The Harrison School, run by a kind and gentle psychiatrist, Dr. Lutkin.

Each chapter alternates between the three characters’ or Dr. Lutkin’s point of view; no, it’s not confusing – Gholar does a great job at allowing the story to flow quite nicely. The characters have their own storylines, which eventually merge towards the end, making this an absorbing, suspenseful read. Dr. Gail’s chapters were bold and readers see black girl magic at work in her character. In my opinion, she’s the heroine of this novel – you’ll have to get your copy to find out why!

The Harrison School is not your average therapeutic boarding school. It is an ideal environment for anyone – not just students who battle with mental illness. Tiffany Gholar’s palpable descriptions of various rooms decorated in tones like amethyst purples, sapphire blues and emerald greens as well as descriptions of students having their own comfy bedrooms with medical staff always on call, made me wish this sanctuary actually existed. Since Tiffany Gholar is an artist (she designed the four different book covers for this novel), writer and interior designer, trust and believe that her descriptions are impressively vivid and vibrant. Vivid descriptions + great storytelling sprinkled with suspense made this an enjoyable read.

Tiffany Gholar’s A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a reminder of why we need to support more Indie writers. I would give this novel 5 stars, but the words ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ were over-used for a story of this nature. Maybe the use of these words were intentional, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. One theme that’s constant in this novel is the theme of mental health awareness. Each character is dealing which his/her own stresses that have an effect on their mental and emotional health. From reading the blurb, one may think this novel is super heavy and dark, but it’s not at all. Readers will encounter a blossoming romance, crazy pharmaceutical politics, issues surrounding race, funny commentary on various students and events. Be prepared to enter a time-capsule as you travel back to 1994 when singer Tevin Campbell, Digable Planets (hip hop group) and the film ET were still popular. The novel isn’t bogged down with excessive depressing happenings – trust me on this one!

Lately, there is more and more talk in the Black community around mental health and ‘self-care’ to the point where it’s even (unfortunately) commercialized. Black/African communities rarely used to speak on the issue of mental health because they/we think everything can be prayed away. But I strongly believe seeking help through psychotherapy or finding a counsellor can be the first step towards healing – Devante, Janina, Dr. Gail and Dr. Lutkin are proof of this! I hope this novel gets the attention of various middle and high schools because Gholar’s sensitive writing is a great tool for discussing various personal issues, with young adults of color.

Special thanks to Tiffany Gholar for sending me the Dr. Gail Thomas edition of the book!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase A Bitter Pill To Swallow on Amazon